Shiftless, Chapter 2, Scene 1

In case you’ve missed it, Chapter 1 Scene 3 can be found here.

Chapter 2 Scene 1

That evening, I reached for my wolf for the first time in years. But she was gone, squashed beneath layers of iron control built during a decade of painstaking effort. So it was up to my human eyes and nose to hunt down signs of the lost toddler.

Well, it was up to my eyes…and to the eyes of a dozen other park rangers spread out across the rapidly chilling woodland. I’d returned from the city in time to put in a few hours of work at the park, and the monotony of desk-sitting abruptly ended when Mr. Carr barreled in to tell us his daughter had wandered away from the family campsite. I’d yet to meet Melony’s mother—she refused to come out of the woods until the little girl was found, but Mrs. Carr did yell her position through the trees when we arrived. In response, we spread out, each taking a vector that started at the campsite and arrowed out into the unknown. And we started to search.

Since then, it had begun to rain. A gentle autumn shower at first, but now the pounding storm was pulling leaves from the trees and was muffling even the sound of my own footsteps. Water was trickling down my spine despite my hooded slicker, and I could just imagine how a two-year-old would feel, cold and scared, lost in the woods. Her father had told us Melony was wearing shorts and a thin t-shirt—she might already be experiencing symptoms of hypothermia.

The light was beginning to fade, and urgency tempted me to push myself into a trot. Instead, I slowed down, took a deep breath…and sat. I would have received a phone call if Melony had been found, which meant everyone else was probably getting these same jitters of a hunt about to be lost. They would be rushing around like crazy people, and the night would likely end with at least a sprained ankle to remind some careless ranger of the hunt. Worse, my gut said that if Melony didn’t turn up soon, she wouldn’t turn up alive.

But my unconventional childhood left me equipped to handle the tail end of a difficult hunt…if I could just draw upon the memories I’d been hiding from for the last ten years. The problem was that, although I desperately needed to shift forms so I could sniff out Melony’s trail, the last time I’d been hunting through rain-darkened woods with my wolf rampant, the day hadn’t ended well.

I was seventeen then, newly fled from my home pack and trying to eke out a living in a forest much like this one. The woods had always been my safe, secret place as a child, but after I left Haven, reality set in. Without a home to return to, life was a constant battle against the elements…and against my wolf nature.

That year, it seemed that I was always cold and hungry, and the call of my wolf was endlessly enticing. While I was shivering under my lean-to shelter made of branches and a scavenged garbage bag, the wolf begged me to shift forms so her fur could keep us dry. When I was itching for a warm meal, she whispered that we could stalk a rabbit four-footed and slake our thirst with hot blood. No one will see us here, she breathed in my ear. It’s safe to be a wolf.

I knew she was wrong, but I was so miserable that one day I let the wolf have her head. As the days grew shorter, less and less wild food was available for the picking, and it had been over forty-eight hours since I’d found anything other than twigs to gnaw on. In the preceding weeks, I’d caught fish, had set snares, and had even ground acorns between rocks and pinned them in my t-shirt in the running water of a creek to leach out the bitter tannins. And, for a while, there had been enough to carry me through. But this week, no food was to be found.

The hunger gnawed at my belly, but if I was honest, it was the loneliness that really did me in. Werewolves weren’t meant to spend so long away from a pack, and the simplicity of my wolf’s brain made it easier for the canine to handle lack of pack mates—she missed the company but didn’t dwell upon what was absent. So, at last, I gave in to the wolf’s seductive promises. I shed my dripping t-shirt and jeans, then let my arms turn into legs and my wolf take control.

As soon as I shifted, my darker side went wild with the freedom, racing down a deer path that my human form had barely been able to make out amid the lush growth. She yipped and cavorted, dancing with shadows, and my human brain went along for the ride, riding the wolf’s exhilaration like a roller coaster. It had been so long since I’d felt any pleasure that the wolf’s simple enjoyment acted like a drug, impairing my ability to hang onto human thoughts.

After minutes or hours of headlong flight, we smelled a deer. The wolf slowed her pace and began to stalk the prey, even though we both knew that a single wolf was unlikely to take down an ungulate. We circled around behind the doe, our feet padding silently across wet leaves, and my human brain woke enough to remind the wolf of sharp deer hooves, of the necessity to chase a deer until she was heaving from lack of air and had slowed enough for us to puncture sharp teeth through her throat. This was a job for a pack, each wolf running in relay to spell her siblings until the deer collapsed from exhaustion.

So we run, the wolf responded, ignoring the reference to pack mates—to a wolf brain, there was no point in bemoaning an absence beyond our control. But before we could set out after the deer, the wolf stopped in her tracks and scented the air, her tail rising into an excited banner. Not far away was easier prey, tasty, small, and young. Together, my wolf and I salivated at the impending feast.

Human! It took me far too long to realize that in her headlong flight, the wolf had drawn us beyond our usual territory, to the edge of the forest where houses butted up against the trees. Until that moment, I’d steered clear of humanity because a teen runaway had no place in mainstream society, but now I knew we should have given the subdivision a wide berth for another reason. Even to my human brain, the child playing at the edge of the trees smelled like prey, and I was sickened by my own hunger.

As my human brain struggled to regain control of our body, it became the wolf’s turn to push me down into her cage. Again, the wolf began to stalk, and now I had to reach up through the bars to fight the canine every step of the way. We sidled and slipped in the leaves as I clawed against my darker half, but with the single-minded focus of her lupine heritage, the wolf ignored all my entreaties. I could only watch, aghast, as a young child came into view, playing in a sand box just beyond the forest edge.

There was no art to the hunt, but my wolf was hungry and didn’t care. She lunged out of the trees, her teeth settling around the child’s plump arm, tasting sweet flesh even as the girl shrieked at the top of her lungs. Scenes flickered in front of me, blood and terrified eyes, sand turning red. I banged on the door of the cage with all my might, to no avail.

Then an adult human tore out of the house, a gun in his hands. He fired, the bullet grazing our shoulder, and the shock was enough to make the wolf pause, to relax her iron control over my human brain. I leaped upwards out of the cage, pushed the wolf out of the way, and was shifting even as we fled back into the forest. I could hear the girl crying behind us, so I knew our prey wasn’t dead, and since werewolves are born not made, she would never start howling at the moon. But that knowledge did little to ease my guilt and horror. With the last of my strength, I pushed the wolf so deeply into her cage that she couldn’t even speak to me, let alone run wild, then I clanged the door shut and threw away the key. And although I felt her every day afterwards, gnawing at my bones, I hadn’t seen the wolf since.

Don’t stop there! Chapter 2 Scene 2 is just a click away…